Cannabis Under The Indian Legal System

Cannabis has been part of Indian history since time immemorial. It has been embedded in the religious, cultural, and traditional practices of India. The Vedas mention cannabis as one of the five most sacred plants. Ayurveda texts state the medicinal properties of cannabis and its usefulness as an aid to cure certain illnesses. Until 1985, cannabis was legal in India. With the enactment of the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substance Act, 1985 (NDPS, Act 1985) cultivation, transportation, use, possession, distribution, storage, sale, consumption, disposal, or acquisition of cannabis was made illegal in India. 

Cannabis is generally a mono-specific Cannabis sativa L. which is divided into several sub-species (C. sativa subsp. sativa, C. sativa subsp. indica, C. sativa subsp. ruderalis, C. sativa subsp. spontanea, C. sativa subsp. kafiristanca). There are more than 500 chemical compounds present in cannabis and out of them 100 of them are classified as (phyto) cannabinoids (1). CBD (cannabidiol) and THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) are the cannabinoids which are mainly found in cannabis products. THC is the psychoactive component in cannabis that causes the high sensation and intoxication.

The Framework of National Policy on Narcotic and Psychotropic Substance


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The Government of India drives its policies on Narcotic and Psychotropic substances from principles laid down in Article 47, Constitution of India under The Directive Principles of State Policy. It directs the State to endeavor to bring about prohibition of the consumption of intoxicating drugs injurious to health, except for medicinal purposes.

Along with the constitutional provisions, Indian policies are also guided and derived from international conventions. India is a signatory to the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs 1961, as amended by the 1972 Protocol, the Conventions on Psychotropic Substances, 1971, and the United Nations Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances, 1988. 

The legislature on the subject is covered under three Acts


  1. The Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, 1985;
  2. Drugs and Cosmetics Act, 1940; and
  3. The Prevention of Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, 1988.

The enactment and functions under the legislature are carried out through several Ministries, Departments, and Organizations. These include the Ministry of Finance, Department of Revenue which has the nodal coordination role as administrator of the NDPS Act, 1985.

Cannabis Farm
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Although the NDPS Act, 1985 makes the cultivation, transportation, use, possession, distribution, storage, sale, consumption, disposal, or acquisition of cannabis illegal, there are provisions with exceptions for industrial and medicinal cannabis. Under Section 14 of the NDPS Act, 1985 the Government has powered through a general or special order to allow cultivation of cannabis plants for industrial purposes only for obtaining fiber or seeds or for horticulture purposes. Under Section 10 of the NDPS Act, 1985 the State Government has been delegated specific powers to permit, control, and regulate the policies for the cultivation of any cannabis plant, production, manufacture, possession, transport, import inter-State, export inter-State, sale, purchase, consumption or use of cannabis (excluding charas) within the state under the NDPS Act, 1985.

The Indian legal system is rigid about cannabis due to the misuse of the plant and the cannabis industry is strictly under governmental supervision in accordance with international treaties. Cannabis has a major social stigma attached to it due to its misuse, but slowly states are opening up with and using the powers vested under Section 10 of the NDPS Act, 1985 to permit, control and regulate the cannabis industry for industrial and scientific research purposes. Recently, the State of Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, and Himachal Pradesh have given a green signal for medicinal and industrial cannabis. The states of Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan are also amongst the ones that are opening up to the cannabis industry to boost up their economies. 

Industrial cannabis (industrial hemp) comprises a number of varieties of Cannabis sativa L. that are intended for agricultural and industrial purposes. They are grown for their seeds and fibers. Industrial cannabis is characterized by low THC content and high cannabidiol (CBD) content (2).

Classification of cannabis under Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, 1985


As per Section 2(xiv) of the NDPS Act, 1985 cannabis is categorized as a “narcotic drug”. The classification of cannabis (hemp) can be found under Section 2 (iii) as:

(a) charas – separated resin also known as hashish oil or liquid hashish and 

(b) ganja – the flowering or fruiting tops of the cannabis plant (excluding the seeds and leaves when not accompanied by the tops). 

As per Section 2 (xxiii) of NDPS Act, 1985 “Psychotropic substance” means any substance, natural or synthetic, or any natural material or any salt or preparation of such substance or material included in the list of psychotropic substances specified in the Schedule. THC contained in cannabis falls under the list of psychotropic substances under Schedule of the Act. The rules under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Rules, 1985 are to be read along with the sections of the NDPS Act, 1985 for applicability.

It is interesting to note that the exclusion of the seeds and leaves from the definition of cannabis as a narcotic drug gives way for the age-old tradition of bhang consumption in India which is made from hemp leaves. 

As we interpret the law, the Indian Government never entirely prohibited the hemp industry. The hemp industry has been under strict governmental supervision since the enactment of the NDPS Act, 1985. With the world starting the discussion and research on hemp again, India is also gearing up with the discussion and research in accordance with the powers vested in the Indian legislature.

(1) Borille, Bruna Tassi & González, Marina & Steffens, Luiza & Ortiz, Rafael & Limberger, Renata. (2017). CANNABIS SATIVA: A SYSTEMATIC REVIEW OF PLANT ANALYSIS. Drug Analytical Research. 1. 1- 23. 10.22456/2527-2616.73676.

(2) UNODC – United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (2009) Recommended methods for the identification and analysis of cannabis and cannabis products.

Pallavi S. Maheshwari
Pallavi S. Maheshwari
Advocate working towards social upliftment and sustainable development.

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